Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, June 5, 2018


Alejandro Olivera, Center for Biological Diversity, +521(612) 104-0604,  
Marjorie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute, (202) 446-2128,      
Kari Birdseye, Natural Resources Defense Council, (415) 875-8243,

UNESCO Recommends Delaying “In-danger” Designation for Vaquita Habitat, Despite President Peña Nieto´s Failure to Protect Endangered Porpoise

Conservation Groups Vow to Fight for Increased Protections

PARIS— Despite the vaquita porpoise’s near extinction, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have recommended postponing “in danger” status for the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California World Heritage site. The delay comes despite Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s failure to safeguard the vaquita.

The area was named a World Heritage site in 2005, in part to protect the vaquita, a small porpoise with fewer than 30 individuals remaining. The vaquita is losing half its population each year because of entanglement in fishing gear. If current rates continue, the vaquita will be extinct by 2021.

“Delay equals death for the vaquita,” said Alejandro Olivera, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Mexico’s representative. “More than half the vaquita’s population has vanished during President Peña Nieto’s time in office. UNESCO should not delay these crucial safeguards until the next administration and let the president off the hook for failing to protect these porpoises.”

The World Heritage Committee is scheduled to vote on this recommendation during its 42nd meeting in Manama, Bahrain beginning June 24. An “in danger” listing would help raise attention to the plight of the vaquita and lend both logistical and financial support to Mexico to eradicate illegal fishing in the vaquita’s habitat.

“The vaquita, totoaba and all other marine species in the Upper Gulf of California impacted by illegal gillnet fishing cannot wait another year,” said Kate O’Connell, a marine wildlife consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute. “The WHC must send a clear message to Mexico that it has to substantially increase protections for these species and their habitat now.”

“Fewer than 30 vaquita remain on the planet,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Any delay in taking all measures to protect these animals is barbaric and completely shortsighted.”
A WHC and IUCN report from April 2017 recommended an “in danger” designation for the site, but the Mexican government lobbied to postpone the decision until 2018, based on commitments and promises that it failed to uphold.

A new 2018 WHC and IUCN report also found that the “only way to safeguard the species from extinction is the cessation of illegal fishing activities” and that “illegal fishing activities still occur.” Nonetheless, the WHC recommended that the World Heritage Committee delay the “in danger” decision until 2019. 

In 2015, the Animal Welfare Institute and Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the World Heritage Committee to list the site as “in danger,” citing the vaquita´s decline. The vaquita faces a single threat — entanglement in illegal gillnets set to capture shrimp and fish, including the totoaba. Totoaba swim bladders are in high demand in Asia for purported medicinal properties and are worth more than cocaine on the black market.

Eight vaquita have died since March 2017, and hundreds of illegal gillnets have been removed from the Upper Gulf since December 2016. Trafficking in totoaba parts continues unabated as more than 750 totoaba swim bladders have been seized in Mexico in recent months, according to Federal Agency of Environmental Protection (PROFEPA).

The recent WHC and IUCN report acknowledges that the continued removal of gillnets from the Upper Gulf of California and ongoing illegal trade in totoaba parts demonstrate Mexico’s inability to protect the site.

The Animal Welfare Institute is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. For more information, visit

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

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